Yes, I know that a whale is not a fish. Fish are cold blooded and breathe through gills. Whales are warm blooded and breathe through lungs — they are mammals like us. Yet Herman Melville in Moby Dick calls them fish because the sea is the only environment in which they can live. Old English law also called them fish. It is concerned with who owns the fish or whale. Melville quotes it:
I. A Fast-Fish belongs to the party fast to it.
II. A Loose-Fish is fair game for anybody who can soonest catch it.
But what plays the mischief with this masterly code is the admirable brevity of it, which necessitates a vast volume of commentaries to expound it.
Most of Moby Dick is a commentary on a simple commandment: go and hunt and the kill the whale. But who owns that whale? In these laws the Fast-Fish is not the one who is fast (quick) to get away, but who is fast to some human boat or device. Then he belongs to his captor. Does he own himself if he is a Loose-Fish? Only while he can avoid your harpoon. The harpoon continues to belong to the harpooner, but if that harpooned fish gets away — Loose again — and is then made fast by someone else, that person gets the fish and the original harpooner is only entitled to the return of his harpoon. These niceties of property law are helpful to the pursuers, but not to the pursued whale.
The structure of Moby Dick is frustrating to the reader who is a Loose-Fish made Fast in its many pages. After we leave on the Pequot, meet the many characters aboard, learn that Captain Ahab is almost certainly mad, and butcher a few whales, the action slows to a stop while Melville contemplates the whale. We learn of the size of the whale, the variety of whales, the face of the whale, the brain and spinal chord of the whale, the ancient beliefs about the whale, the tail of the whale and more categories and subcategories than I can recite here. We read all this while waiting for Ahab to get on with it, to meet his destiny.
Perhaps we need this pause for reflection, with all its sometimes tedious detail, so that we can understand what it means to kill such a magnificent creature. Ahab tells us Moby Dick is evil, but I don’t see him that way. Moby Dick is asserting his right to be a Loose Fish, now and forever, not to be Fast to Ahab or anyone else. Ahab knows no moderation when taking what nature provides; he sees it as a struggle is which only he has the right to prevail. Melville’s narrator asks:
What are the Rights of Man and the Liberties of the World but Loose-Fish? What all men’s minds and opinions but Loose-Fish? What is the principle of religious belief in them but a Loose-Fish? What to the ostentatious smuggling verbalists are the thoughts of thinkers but Loose-Fish? What is the great globe itself but a Loose-Fish!
And what rights do that great globe and all the fish within it have to be free of being Fast to us?